Category: Mayor Durkan

Gaming Out the Latest “Amazon Tax” At the Start of an Unprecedented Recession

Let’s start out by stating the obvious: Barring a miracle, the “Amazon Tax” proposed by Seattle council members Kshama Sawant and Tammy Morales will not become law in its current form. The bill, which the council will continue discussing into next month, would slap a 1.3 percent payroll tax on companies with more than $7 million in payroll expenses, raising more than $500 million a year from about 800 Seattle companies.

Sawant and Morales decided to designate the bill as an “emergency,” which makes it invulnerable to a future voter referendum; the tradeoff is that they need 7 votes for approval, plus the support of Mayor Jenny Durkan, since the city charter requires mayoral approval of all emergency legislation. In other words, even if Morales and Sawant got five other council members on board—unlikely, if comments at Wednesday’s budget committee from council members who are ordinarily sympathetic to tax-the-rich arguments are any indication—the mayor could simply let the proposal die without a formal veto. Durkan fought Sawant’s last effort to “tax Amazon,” a $275-per-employee tax on employees of companies with gross receipts of more than $20 million, and is implacably opposed to this one as well.

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There is also some question whether the proposal complies with an emergency order issued by Gov. Jay Inslee in March, and extended this week, barring public agencies from adopting or discussing legislation unless it’s “routine” or “necessary to respond to the COVID-19 outbreak and the current public health emergency.”

Despite all that, it’s still worth taking a look at the legislation, which dwarfs the “head tax” the council passed in 2018, then overturned, by a factor of more than ten. What would happen if, against all apparent odds, the bill were to pass in its current form?

In its first year, 2020, the legislation would fund cash payments of $2,000 over four months to 100,000 low-income Seattle residents to respond to the COVID crisis. (This is the part of the bill most obviously compliant with Inslee’s order). Because revenues from the tax wouldn’t be available until 2021, the bill would fund these checks by taking a short-term loan from six city funds that, according to a companion bill, have “sufficient cash” to contribute up to $50 million each. Those funds would be paid back in 2021, plus $5 million interest.

From then on, assuming all the assumptions that went into the proposal remain correct, the tax would pump more than $500 million a year into funding for “social housing” for people making between 0 and 100 percent of the Seattle median income, operational support for permanent supportive housing, and funding to implement the Green New Deal, which includes strategies like weatherization and converting buildings from gas to electric heat. The amount of funding from the tax would be less, of course, if the number of businesses spending more than $7 million annually on payroll declined because of the recession.

Even if the legislation is safe from any future referendum, it would still be subject to lawsuits, and there’s no guarantee that litigation over the tax would be resolved quickly, or in the city’s favor.

The $200 million “interfund loan” would come from six voter-approved levies and taxing districts, including the Move Seattle levy; the Families and Education Levy; the Seattle Parks District; and the Library Levy. Some of these funds do have “sufficient cash” to give up $50 million in the short term, but it’s worth taking a look at why that is, and how this might impact their ability to fund promised projects.

The Low Income Housing Fund, which receives money from the Housing Levy and payments from developers through the Mandatory Housing Affordability program, has more than $146 million on hand because property taxes have continued to flow in to fund future projects that are not yet off the ground. That money is in the city’s “bank,” but it’s already spoken for. Other funds, such as the Library Levy Fund, the Move Seattle Fund, and the Parks District Fund, have significantly less than $50 million lying around. The Parks District fund, in fact, is actually in the red; the 2020 budget makes up a $6 million shortfall with an interfund loan, to be repaid as more revenues come in. Some of these funds simply aren’t that big to begin with—the library levy, for example, is supposed to raise just over $200 million, total, over seven years,

None of that might matter if the $200 million could be repaid in just one year as proposed. But even if the legislation is safe from any future referendum, it would still be subject to lawsuits, and there’s no guarantee that litigation over the tax would be resolved quickly, or in the city’s favor. If funding from the tax didn’t come through quickly, or ever, it’s unclear how the $200 million would be repaid. If, say, the Library Levy found itself short $50 million, that could significantly impact the library’s ability to provide services promised to voters—especially as the recession eats into the city’s tax base.

There are also other interests competing for that money. As city budget director Ben Noble noted in his grim revenue forecast presentation Wednesday, the city may have to dip into some of the dedicated levy funds to pay for basic services—using the parks levy to fund basic maintenance instead of new capital projects, for example. “If the base levels of funding for which the levies were intended to be additive are no longer feasible, the question is whether it would make sense to use the levy funds for operational purposes,” Noble told the council Wednesday. Continue reading “Gaming Out the Latest “Amazon Tax” At the Start of an Unprecedented Recession”

City Plans to Reopen Restrooms at Six Library Branches (UPDATED: Five )

 

UPDATE: Late Tuesday afternoon, the city announced that it is opening five library restrooms; the Chinatown/International District branch, which was on the initial list of proposed branch openings, is no longer on the list. I’ve asked the city why this branch was omitted and will update this post if I receive more information.

The Seattle Public Library, which closed down all of its 26 branches on March 13 to protect patrons and employees during the COVID-19 epidemic, is planning to partially reopen a handful of branches to provide access to restrooms for people experiencing homelessness. Discussions are still ongoing about safety protocols, staffing levels, and hours, but an announcement could come as soon as this week.

The six branches where the city is considering restroom-only openings are the central library downtown and neighborhood branches in Ballard, Capitol Hill, the University District, the International District, and Beacon Hill. People using the restrooms would be required to line up outside, and patrons would not have access to other parts of the libraries.

Seattle City Council members Andrew Lewis, who chairs the council’s homelessness committee, and Dan Strauss, whose district includes the Ballard library branch, first publicly suggested opening the library restrooms in early April, after deputy mayor Casey Sixkiller revealed that the city is paying $35,000 per month for each hygiene center, including the three Honey Buckets (pictured above) that are currently posted just across the street from the Ballard branch.

“I don’t set the prices, so I can’t speak for other people,” Sixkiller said at a meeting of the council’s homelessness committee on April 8.

Even if each library branch pays several staff members to keep the restroom area open and prevent patrons from wandering into the stacks, opening the libraries will still almost certainly cost less than what the city is paying for portable toilets. This is rough math, but three staffers who cost the city $50 an hour would cost around $25,000 a month, or $10,000 less than a single hygiene center.

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Besides the cost, which Sixkiller attributed to “simple supply and demand” at a time when many cities are looking for hygiene solutions, a recurring issue with portable toilets is that their handwashing facilities frequently run out of water and require constant maintenance. Alison Eisinger, the director of the Seattle/King County Coalition on Homelessness, argue that people need access to a toilet within a half mile of where they live, and has suggested partially reopening both libraries and community centers for this purpose.

After I reported that up to a third of the restrooms the city said were open were actually locked, the city opened up most parks restrooms and added new 24/7 “hygiene centers” (portable toilets with handwashing stations) at 12 locations . However, restroom closures continue to occur at unpredictable intervals; over the weekend, for example, restrooms at Volunteer Park were locked, and one of the restrooms at Leschi Park lacked both soap and any kind of toilet paper or paper towels.

It’s unclear precisely when the city plans to open the library restrooms, and what hurdles remain. Kamaria Hightower, a spokeswoman for Mayor Jenny Durkan, said, “I can’t confirm any details or specifics at this time as we are continuing conversations with labor, management and city employees and developing potential operational plans including locations, staffing, and hours.”

Draft City Policy Would Restrict Personal Use of Social Media, Bar Public Employees From Discussing Anything “Not Already Considered Public”

A proposed new rule governing City of Seattle employees’ conduct on social media would place new restrictions on what employees are allowed to say online, and would include not just full-time workers but anyone who contracts, works part-time, volunteers, or takes an internship at the city. The social-media restrictions would cover everything from harassment, doxxing, and expressing racist sentiments online (all reasonable restrictions for public servants) to anything that “negatively impacts the City of Seattle’s ability to serve the public,” a phrase that is undefined in the legislation and that does not appear in the Seattle Municipal Code.

The rule, which is modeled on (but is much more extensive than) the Seattle Police Department’s Code of Conduct for social media, would also prohibit city workers, contractors, and volunteers from disclosing or even discussing any city information that is either “confidential” (defined as anything that would not be disclosed through a public records requests, including policy drafts like the one I am describing) or “any information that is not already considered public.” Here’s that paragraph in full:

Unless a City employee is an authorized public information officer, an employee whose primary responsibility at the City is to communicate directly to the public on behalf of their department, employees shall not post or otherwise disseminate any confidential information they have access to or have learned about as a result of their employment with the City of Seattle, or discuss any information that is not already considered public without the prior consent or authorization of City department communications.

This restriction, interpreted liberally, would effectively ban all city employees from talking to the media unless explicitly authorized by a city public information officer to do so. The city’s whistleblower code only prohibits retaliation against employees who speak out about “waste[s] of public funds, unsafe practices and violations of law including violation of the City’s Ethics Code.”

Disclosing “confidential” information is already prohibited, although it happens routinely, especially in administrations that interpret public disclosure laws broadly—for example, by blacking out entire documents or simply refusing to provide them on the grounds that anything that isn’t already official policy or law is part of the city’s “deliberative process.”

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The ban on discussing anything that isn’t “already considered public” would be a broad expansion of this prohibition, effectively barring city employees from bringing forward concerns or information of public interest unless a department spokesperson answering to the mayor signs off on it in advance. Whistleblowers like the Seattle Silence Breakers, who brought forward stories about sexual harassment, assault, and gender discrimination within several city departments, might be less likely to come forward in the future if city policy explicitly bars them from discussing not just confidential information but any information that isn’t approved in advance by an official spokesperson for the city.

Shaun Van Eyk, the union representative for the Professional and Technical Employees Union, Local 17, which represents many city employees, says the proposed rule as written is “pretty far afield from anything we would accept.” He says the city has been quietly working on the rule for more a year, but he just became aware of it in the past two months.

Anthony Derrick, a digital advisor for the mayor’s office, says it’s “very common” for cities to have social media policies, and provided links to the policies for South San Francisco, Los Angeles, and New York City. None of these policies, however, included any details about city employees’ personal use of social media; rather, all three are about how city employees should operate the official social media accounts of city agencies.

Derrick did not respond directly to a question about what would constitute “any information that is not considered public,” and pointed to the whistleblower code and existing language barring the disclosure of confidential information in the city’s municipal code. “It goes without saying that anything we potentially implement in the future would not infringe upon employees’ freedom of speech or civil liberties,” he says.

The city had hoped to wrap up discussions about the policy with “representatives from nearly all departments” by the end of March, according to Derrick, but the COVID-19 outbreak has put those conversations on hold. 

With Public Meetings Shut Down, Housing Developers Seek Temporary Relief from Seattle Process

The Standard towers in the University District, one of dozens of projects caught in limbo when COVID-19 led to the cancellation of all public meetings.

Nonprofit affordable housing providers and other developers were alarmed when a proposal from Mayor Jenny Durkan’s office that would make it possible for their projects to move forward during the COVID crisis was abruptly removed from this week’s city council agenda. The legislation would allow projects to go through the shorter “administrative” design review process, in which projects are reviewed and approved by trained city staff, instead of the usual “full” design review, which involves public meetings and sometimes-lengthy deliberations. Similarly, the city’s Historic Preservation Officer would be empowered to approve or deny changes to landmarked buildings for six months.

The changes would last for six months, or until the city has developed a system for design-review and landmarks board meetings to take place online. Without a process for projects to move forward, land-use attorney Jack McCullough says, a lot of planned developments could be “dead in the water.”

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“If we have to tell everyone who’s in the pipeline or ready to get in, ‘We can’t tell you when you’ll ever be able to move forward,’ people will mothball their projects. They may not kill them, but they’re going to say, ‘If there’s not a path, why am I spending money money on this?”

The council was prepared to adopt the proposal on Monday, but after an executive session at which the city’s law department reportedly expressed concerns that it could open up the city to appeals to the state Growth Management Board, the legislation was yanked from the agenda. (City council president Lorena Gonzalez was unable for comment Thursday, and a city council spokeswoman did not return a call.) On Thursday, after both for-profit developers and low-income housing builders raised a ruckus, it’s back on next week’s agenda.

The city’s eight design review boards are supposed to ensure that their designs are high-quality, comply with regulations, and are appropriate for the neighborhoods where they’re being built. (This process, of course, can be quite contentious and subjective.) Twenty-nine projects, totaling 3,500 new housing units, were supposed to get hearings between March 11 and May 4, according to the city’s Department of Construction and Inspections, and another 30 were starting the community outreach process that precedes design review.  SDCI spokesman Bryan Stevens says many of these projects will provide affordable housing funds through the city’s Mandatory Housing Affordability Program or include affordable units through the Multifamily Tax Exemption program. The 30 projects that were just starting out include four affordable-housing buildings.

Chris Persons, the head of Capitol Hill Housing, says he has two projects in the development pipeline, including one that requires approval by the landmarks board. “It’s stuck, but it could be resolved by this legislation,” Persons says. Continue reading “With Public Meetings Shut Down, Housing Developers Seek Temporary Relief from Seattle Process”

Seattle Pays Premium for Shower Trailers, Regional Leaders Still Support Mass Shelter Over Hotels

 

Hygiene trailers at King County’s COVID assessment and recovery site in Shoreline.

1. Two mobile hygiene trailers that the city of Seattle is renting from a California-based company called VIP Restrooms will likely cost the city hundreds of thousands of dollars a month to operate, Seattle Public Utilities confirms. The city budget adopted last year included funding to purchase and operate five mobile hygiene trailers, which include showers and toilets, at an estimated cost of $1.3 million, but the mayor’s office and the Human Services Department, which oversaw the project until SPU took over last month, did not start working to procure them until mid-March, when the COVID-19 epidemic was already underway and most of the available trailers had been snapped up by other jurisdictions.

The city paid $14,000 to tow the two trailers from California to Seattle, according to a spokeswoman for SPU, and will pay $36,000 a month to rent them from VIP Restrooms. On top of that base cost, the city will pay between $22,800 and $136,800 a month to pump out wastewater, depending on how many times the water is pumped out per day (the estimates range from once to six times daily), plus an unknown amount to clean the showers after each use, “significant costs” for cleaning and maintenance staffing, and additional money for “security [and] cleaning and hygiene supplies like towels, shampoo and soap,” according to SPU.

Security costs can be considerable, perhaps especially during the pandemic. For example, the city is currently paying Phoenix Security Corp $120,000 a month, or $90 an hour, to maintain 24-hour patrols at two “redistribution” shelters at community centers, each containing 50 guests from  existing shelters run by nonprofits such as the YWCA, Catholic Community Services, and Compass Housing. While it’s unclear whether the city plans to hire Phoenix guards to patrol the restrooms as well, Phoenix recently placed a large number of ads for new armed and unarmed security guard jobs in Seattle, starting at $17 an hour.

The city paid $14,000 to tow the two trailers from California to Seattle, and will pay $36,000 a month to rent them from VIP Restrooms. On top of that base cost, the city will pay between $22,800 and $136,800 a month to pump out wastewater, plus an unknown amount to clean the showers after each use, “significant costs” for cleaning and maintenance staffing, and additional money for security and supplies, according to SPU.

Other cities provide mobile showers at much lower cost. For example, in Los Angeles, a nonprofit group called Shower of Hope operates showers at 24 sites at a much lower cost than the price Seattle is paying for its temporary shower trailers. Mel Tillekeratne, the founder and executive director of Shower of Hope, says the trailers themselves typically cost about $30,000 to buy, although “you could buy a high-end one for $60,000,” plus about $1,200 each to operate per day. Shower of Hope trailers don’t operate every day, but if they did, that would work out to about $36,000 in operating costs every month, a price tag that includes staffing (usually, shower staffers make $16 an hour, but Shower of Hope has bumped that up a few bucks during the COVID-19 outbreak).

Tillekeratne says he thinks cities like Seattle are being gouged by private companies because so many cities are scrambling to provide services during a crisis that they should have taken care of years ago. “This is decades of neglect that now they’re paying a premium to address,” he says.

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In Seattle, Low Income Housing Institute director Sharon Lee says the shower building LIHI installed at its tiny house village in Interbay, which is hooked up to plumbing and electricity, cost about $50,000; a shower trailer with a gray water tank at Camp Second Chance in West Seattle cost between $25,000 and $30,000, plus about $1,200 a month to pump out gray water from the showers.

“For the price they’re renting [them for], we could just build them,” Lee says. Last week, Lee sent a letter to Mayor Jenny Durkan and the Human Services Department offering to “build hygiene facilities and locate them in Sodo… Rainier Valley, Capitol Hill, and elsewhere,” to staff existing public restrooms in Pioneer Square and at pools in Ballard and the Central District, and to open up more tiny house villages around the city. Lee says she has not heard back from the mayor’s office or HSD.

2. As the city of Seattle pays hundreds of thousands of dollars staffing and patrolling spaces where homeless people sleep head to toe, with six feet separating them from the people to their right and left, advocates have repeatedly made the point that congregate shelters do not allowed the social isolation that housed people are told to practice if they want to avoid COVID infection. In LA, mayor Eric Garcetti threatened to commandeer hotel rooms if the hotels didn’t make them available for homeless people.

Here in Seattle and King County, however, only a relative handful of people experiencing homelessness have been able to access hotels (well, motels) as an alternative to large mass shelters. Earlier this month, about 390 clients of three shelter providers moved to three motels in Renton, Bellevue, and SeaTac, a scant 3 percent of the county’s homeless population of more than 12,000. The city of Seattle rented out a high-end downtown hotel for first responders at a cost of around $1 million a month, but has preferred to move people from crowded shelters into slightly less crowded ones, rather than give them their own hotel rooms.

During a press briefing last week, King County health officer Jeff Duchin responded to a question about hotels by reiterating the Centers for Disease Control’s guidance for congregate shelters. Snohomish County’s Public Health Officer, Chris Spitters, said his county is promoting “widespread use of hotel/motel vouchers at an unprecedented rate,” but added that motel vouchers can have “side effects. … It’s definitely a good disease control tool to disaggregate and spread people apart. On the other hand, it moves them away from services that, in the long run, they need, so it’s a real challenge to find the balance.”

3. Meanwhile, a 180-bed “shelter tent” that deputy mayor Casey Sixkiller mentioned during a contentious public meeting about hygiene services for unsheltered people may not materialize. Homeless advocates I spoke to this week and last say that Sixkiller’s offhand comment that “we are siting a shelter tent here in the city for 180 individuals” was the first they’d heard of such a proposal, and a spokeswoman for the Salvation Army, which was supposed to staff and run the tent, would say only that “the project has been discussed [but] is not yet confirmed.” Kamaria Hightower, a spokeswoman for Mayor Durkan’s office, responded to my questions by saying, “the City is having conversations about options and there is nothing else to share at this time.”

LEAD Pivots to Focus on Jail Releases, King County Outlines Behavioral Health Strategy for COVID Isolation Sites

Partitions between beds at the county’s COVID-19 isolation and recovery site in Shoreline.

1. The Public Defender Association’s Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion program, which in normal times is a program that keeps low-level offenders out of jail by providing case management and connections to services, has pivoted during the COVID epidemic to focus on people who are being let out of King County jails to prevent overcrowding and who have few social supports or legal sources of income. The Co-LEAD Program, PDA director Lisa Daugaard says, is “starting with people who were released in the wave of jail releases and are not doing very well, which is, of course, totally predictable.” The program is also accepting referrals from prosecutors, defense attorneys, and law enforcement—”people who in normal days might be subject to arrest but that is completely off the table,” Daugaard said.

With job opportunities virtually nonexistent (and work release shut down for the foreseeable future), Daugaard says property crime has risen in some areas. “For a lot of people without any means of support, what’s the option?” she says. “There’s got to be some strategy for people to take care of their basic needs when there is no way to earn money. That is the bottom line for a lot of folks.”

The Co-LEAD program, which launched this week in Burien, is providing former jail inmates with access to hotel rooms, gift cards, and crisis intervention. So far, the PDA has reserved about 25 rooms in hotels along the I-5 corridor and “we plan on scaling that up rapidly.”

If you’re wondering where LEAD is getting the money to do all this—wasn’t the mayor still withholding their 2020 funding and refusing to sign a contract until LEAD met a long list of conditions?—the answer is that the city finally signed the contract and released LEAD’s full 2020 funding in late March, after the COVID epidemic hit. “We finally executed the contract for the total amount of funding and immediately the world is different,” Daugaard says.

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2. King County is opening hundreds of hotel rooms and field hospital beds for shelter residents and for those in isolation or quarantine who have (or may have) COVID-19 and have no safe place to isolate or recover. One question that has come up both tacitly and explicitly, in Seattle and in other cities with large homeless populations, is what happens when someone needs crisis intervention or help managing their active addiction.

Both Seattle mayor Jenny Durkan and San Francisco Mayor London Breed have suggested that it would be prohibitively expensive, for example, for cities to rent out large blocks of hotel rooms for people experiencing homelessness, because they would have to be heavily staffed by care workers—workers who would need to be trained, it is implied, to intervene at a moment’s notice when homeless clients act out, attempt to destroy hotel property, or try to leave.

“It’s a scary, isolating, confusing, lengthy process, so everybody who we’ve put in these rooms has needed behavioral health care at one time or another. On day 7, after you’ve been in a hotel for that long, just human contact is important.”—King County Behavioral Health and Recovery Division director Kelli Nomura

Kelli Nomura, the director of King County’s Behavioral Health and Recovery Division, says the county has not had to ask anyone to leave any of its quarantine, isolation, and recovery centers, which, as of Sunday, will include a 140-bed field hospital in Shoreline. The county is connecting people to their existing providers when they have them, and providing behavioral health and addiction management services through its King County Integrated Care Network if they don’t.

“Everyone who’s going into these facilities is needing some level of behavioral health support,” including people who aren’t homeless, Nomura says. “It’s a scary, isolating, confusing, lengthy process, so everybody who we’ve put in these rooms has needed behavioral health care at one time or another. On day 7, after you’ve been in a hotel for that long, just human contact is important.”

Nomura says there have been instances when someone with a severe, persistent mental health disorder has had an acute episode, or when people who are actively using drugs or drinking have needed immediate help managing withdrawal symptoms. When that happens, she says, behavioral health staff either connect them by phone with their existing provider or “just step in and do that crisis intervention ourselves. … We have been deescalating, doing motivational interviewing, and you might have to go into on site” to go into a person’s room and intervene, she says.

The county is reserving beds at its isolation and quarantine site on Aurora Ave. N, which includes 23 units in modular buildings, for people who need daily methadone dosing, Nomura says, but opiate users who take Suboxone (buprenorphine) to manage their addictions can fill their prescriptions or get a new one at the other sites.

As of tomorrow, the county will have opened just over 400 units in isolation, quarantine, and recovery sites, including the 140 beds opening in Shoreline on Sunday. Department of Community and Human Services spokeswoman Sherry Hamilton says additional sites at Eastgate in Bellevue and in White Center will be ready later this month; an additional site in Seattle’s Interbay neighborhood, which was initially planned as an isolation and quarantine location, may instead be used as an expansion site for the city’s still-overcrowded shelters.

Morales Proposes Eliminating Most Encampment Sweeps, Mayor’s Office Says Huge New “Shelter Tent” Is Coming, and More

Two of the beds the city is counting as “temporary housing” for homeless people, at an isolation/quarantine facility for COVID patients

1. City council member Tammy Morales plans to introduce a budget proviso that would restrict the Navigation Team’s ability to remove encampments that are not true hazards or obstructions. The proposal, a proviso on the adopted 2020 budget, would bar the city from spending money on sweeps except in a few specific circumstances.

The city has suspended most encampment removals during the COVID epidemic, but several homeless advocates expressed concern this week that the city plans to aggressively sweep encampments as soon as the crisis is over. Prior to the pandemic, the team, made up of police officers, outreach workers, and a cleanup crew, was removing most encampments without notice or mandatory outreach, thanks to a loophole in the city’s encampment rules. Although these rules, known as Multi-Departmental Administrative Rules, or MDARs, require the team to provide 72 hours’ notice and an offer of shelter to every encampment resident, the Navigation Team has gotten around this requirement by designating the overwhelming majority of encampments as “obstructions,” which allows them to remove encampments with no notice or outreach.

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Morales’ proposal would allow the Navigation Team to remove encampments only under a narrow set of circumstances. For example, if an encampment obstructed the entrance to a building; presented an immediate fire hazard; or was located inside a children’s play area, it could be removed without warning. A draft of the bill lists six situations when a removal would be justified.

Morales says the Navigation Team “is using this obstruction language as an excuse, really, to remove people, and so we are trying to limit the funds that can be used to remove encampments. … [Withholding funds] is the only leverage we seem to have. People have been calling on the executive branch since longer than Jenny Durkan’s been there to stop this process, and that message doesn’t seem to be getting through.”

2. During a presentation about the challenges the city faces in opening parks restrooms and standing up portable toilets for people experiencing homelessness during the COVID crisis, deputy mayor Casey Sixkiller repeated what has become one of the mayor’s favorite talking points: “We recently announced our partnership with the county in creating 1,900 new spaces” for people experiencing homelessness, he said. Sixkiller’s comments came shortly after street outreach workers and advocates described the situation on the ground, where thousands of homeless people without access to shelter or public restrooms lack places to use the restroom or wash their hands. Sixkiller said the new beds were part of the city’s efforts to “[move] people inside so hygiene can be accessed there.”

When council members pointed out that this number is not correct—the 1,900 spaces are mostly hospital and isolation/quarantine beds for people who are sick, and the 700 “new” shelter spaces are existing spaces that have been relocated during the crisis—Sixkiller called their objections “semantic.”

When council members pointed out that this number is not correct—the 1,900 spaces, which the mayor’s office has also described as “temporary housing,” are mostly hospital and isolation/quarantine beds for people who are sick, and the 700 “new” shelter spaces are existing spaces that have been relocated during the crisis—Sixkiller called their objections “semantic.” “The reality is that there are 1,900 beds coming online,” he said. King County’s website is the most accurate guide to these 1,893 beds, some of which may not yet be online; they include about 700 existing shelter spaces that have been relocating to achieve social distancing, plus more than 1,000 hospital beds for people in isolation, quarantine, or recovery.

3. SIxkiller also said the city planned to open a “shelter tent for 180 individuals” in partnership with the Salvation Army. Homeless advocates who were participating in, and watching, the meeting said that this was the first they had heard of such a tent, and it was unclear whether the new tent would be for redistribution or an entirely new shelter. (I’ve asked the city for additional details about the tent). Up and down the West Coast, cities are beginning to move away from congregate shelters, which put people in close proximity, with people sleeping head to foot on mats or cots six feet apart and sharing air and mass restroom facilities. California Gov. Gavin Newsom announced this week that the state would pay for 15,000 motel rooms for people experiencing homelessness, and the city of Los Angeles plans to pay for 15,000 more.

A common objection to putting homeless people in hotel or motel rooms is that they need high levels of “staffing” to supervise them, a claim that advocates say is not true for most homeless people, who are capable of caring for themselves but lack the money to pay sky-high rents. Another objection, which came up at a county briefing on shelter and behavioral health on Wednesday, is that hotels aren’t interested. Some homeless advocates, including Seattle University law professor and Homeless Rights Advocacy Project director Sara Rankin, have suggested that the city or county should put out a request for qualifications to hotels and see who bites. “Right now [the Downtown Emergency Service Center] is trying to reach out to hotel and motel facilities themselves, which shouldn’t be DESC’s problem. That should be something that the city is streamlining,” Rankin says.

Advocates Beg for Toilets, Running Water; Deputy Mayor Cites Cost and “Challenges” Like Vandalism and “Theft of Hand Sanitizer”

The city is paying $35,000 apiece for six portable toilet sites, the deputy mayor revealed Wednesday.

Human shit clinging sliding down the street and squishing under a nonprofit director’s shoe as she walked to her car in Pioneer Square. Women bleeding through their clothes because they lack menstrual supplies and a place to get clean. Street-level social service workers forced to pee in alleys because all the restrooms are locked.

These are some of the stories front-line workers told the city council on Wednesday during a meeting of the city council’s homelessness committee. Committee chair Andrew Lewis called the meeting in response to the lack of clean, accessible places for people experiencing homelessness to use the restroom and wash their hands during the COVID crisis—a shortage that, as I first reported,  has contributed to an outbreak of hepatitis A in Ballard.

Dawn Whitson, an outreach worker for REACH – Evergreen Treatment Services who works in Georgetown, said she has resorted to handing out toilet paper to homeless people in the area, because the restroom at the Georgetown Playfield—which she said is open only sporadically—often lacks both toilet paper and soap. “I actually have been out in the field and have had to use the restroom in several different alleys myself” since all the businesses have closed, Whitson said.

Support The C Is for Crank
During this unprecedented time of crisis, your support for truly independent journalism is more critical than ever before. The C Is for Crank is a one-person operation supported entirely by contributions from readers like you. Your $5, $10, and $20 monthly donations allow me to do this work as my full-time job.

Every supporter who maintains or increases their contribution during this difficult time helps to ensure that I can keep covering the issues that matter to you, with empathy, relentlessness, and depth.

If you don’t wish to become a monthly contributor, you can always make a one-time donation via PayPal, Venmo (Erica-Barnett-7) or by mailing your contribution to P.O. Box 14328, Seattle, WA 98104. Thank you for reading, and supporting, The C Is for Crank.

As streets, parks, and playfields have become restrooms of last resort, Whitson said the city has stopped talking to social service providers about whether and when more portable toilets and accessible hand-washing stations are coming. “We’ve managed to develop a field hospital [in CenturyLink Field], and we haven’t been able to get any port-a-potties and we haven’t been able to get any answers,” she said. “I have pointedly asked, ‘Who do we need to call to express our concerns, and I was pretty much stonewalled and told that there was no one I could speak to.”

Casey Sixkiller, Durkan’s deputy mayor in charge of homelessness, launched into his prewritten presentation not by responding to the advocates’ concerns, but by praising Human Services Department employees for “putting their lives at risk” to stand up hygiene stations and asserting that “at least 127” park restrooms are currently open.

The city plans to add eight more port-a-potties to the six locations it announced last week, Sixkiller said, but it would be prohibitively expensive to add many more. Each portable toilet, he said, costs $35,000 a month, a price tag that some council members said sounded like price gouging to them. Honey Bucket does not have an exact price list on its website. In 2017, Willamette Week in Portland reported that the company’s prices had skyrocketed during the solar eclipse—from $140 a week to a whopping $650 per unit.

According to council member Lisa Herbold, as of late February—around the time the first US death from COVID was reported in a Kirkland nursing home—executive-branch staffers were still requesting “basic information about what a mobile pit stop was.”

Sixkiller said he didn’t “know that it’s price gouging” for Honey Bucket to charge what the “market conditions” will allow. “We are competing with everybody else for those resources,” Sixkiller said. “It’s just simple supply and demand.”

The deputy mayor also cited other “challenges” the city has faced in standing up portable toilets and handwashing stations, including “vandalism” and “theft of hand sanitizer” by homeless people—a comment that brought to mind reports of desperate people “looting” food in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina.

Council president Lorena Gonzalez said whatever the price, “when we are talking about 14 toilets”—the six existing sites, plus eight new ones—”for upwards of 6,000 people, I just feel like we aren’t having a conversation based in reality in terms of what the actual need is.” Continue reading “Advocates Beg for Toilets, Running Water; Deputy Mayor Cites Cost and “Challenges” Like Vandalism and “Theft of Hand Sanitizer””

Temporary Sobering Center Opens, Private Security Firm Paid $30,000 a Week to Patrol Two Shelters, Sawant Loses Battle Over the Narrative, and More

New portable toilets and hand-washing station at Ballard Commons park.

1. Recovery Cafe, an organization that helps homeless and formerly homeless people recover from trauma and addiction, has  found a new purpose during the COVID epidemic: Serving as a temporary sobering center for people experiencing homelessness who have significant drug or alcohol issues who have no safe place to “sleep it off.” The organization’s building in SoDo, which has been closed since mid-March, reopened with 20 beds last night, and will expand to 40 beds, and 24/7 operations, later this month. Pioneer Human Services will operate the center.

Sherry Hamilton, a spokeswoman for the county’s Department of Human and Community Services, emphasized that new location will not be a permanent replacement for the SoDo facility that closed last year and has only partially been replaced, by a temporary, nighttime-only facility with limited medical services in a county-owned building at Fourth and Jefferson. Opening up space in that location will allow the county to “further deintensify” the shelter it runs in the same building, Hamilton says.

A proposed replacement in Georgetown was shot down after neighbors sued, and the county still has not located a site for a permanent new facility.

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During this unprecedented time of crisis, your support for truly independent journalism is more critical than ever before. The C Is for Crank is a one-person operation supported entirely by contributions from readers like you. Your $5, $10, and $20 monthly donations allow me to do this work as my full-time job.

Every supporter who maintains or increases their contribution during this difficult time helps to ensure that I can keep covering the issues that matter to you, with empathy, relentlessness, and depth. If you don’t wish to become a monthly contributor, you can always make a one-time donation via PayPal, Venmo (Erica-Barnett-7) or by mailing your contribution to P.O. Box 14328, Seattle, WA 98104.

Thank you for reading, and supporting, The C Is for Crank.

Sobering centers are meant to reduce pressure on local emergency rooms—a role that’s more critical now than at any time in recent history. Hamilton says that once the Recovery Cafe space ramps up, the operator, Pioneer Human Services, will be able to “engage them in services” in a way that isn’t possible when people have to leave at 7am. “The hard part about it being night-only is that they come in, they’re inebriated, they wake up in the morning, and they leave,” Hamilton says. “You haven’t had the time to work with them and engage them in buprenorphine [a medication that treats opiate addiction] or detox and treatment.”

The Seattle region is experiencing a shortage of available behavioral health care workers equipped to treat people with severe mental health and substance use disorders in shelters and COVID isolation, quarantine, and recovery units. I’ll be posting an update on what the county is doing to staff these facilities with behavioral health care workers (and ensure that people engaged in medication-assisted treatment can access their methadone or buprenorphine) later this week.

The city is paying Spokane-based Phoenix Security about $30,000 a week to have a guard at both shelters around the clock. The shelters each serve 50 clients who have been temporarily relocated from existing shelters during the COVID-19 pandemic.

2. I’ve been hammering away for weeks at the fact that the city does not have sufficient restrooms and handwashing facilities for the thousands of homeless people who live on its streets. As I’ve documented in story after story (and on a crowdsourced map I created last month), many of the restrooms that Mayor Jenny Durkan’s office initially claimed are open are actually closed, including restrooms in parks, at community centers, and at playgrounds in every corner of the city. 

This may be finally be changing, however. Durkan’s office reportedly directed the Parks department to open most of the dozens of restrooms that had been locked by yesterday, April 6. Over the weekend, I visited a few parks restrooms in my neighborhood and found that one that had been closed the last time I visited was open, although a “closed” sign was still taped to the door and the restroom itself was filthy and covered with standing water. Readers reported that several other restrooms on the map that had been marked as “closed” were now open.

The mayor’s office is also working to create an interactive map with the locations of restrooms that are currently open. It’s unclear how this will differ from the interactive map the city rolled out in 2018, which showed a much smaller number of restrooms than the 128 the mayor’s office initially claimed were open.

The council’s special committee on homelessness will hold a special, previously unannounced meeting this Wednesday at 10am. The only item on the agenda: “Presentation on the City’s efforts to provide additional hygiene facilities.”

3. Two restrooms on the city’s map that are not currently open are the ones at Garfield Community Center and Miller Community Center, which are serving as “de-intensification” sites for 100 existing shelter beds. Both sites are staffed by Parks Department employees and are patrolled around the clock by private security officers. The city is paying Spokane-based Phoenix Security about $30,000 a week to have a guard at each building 24/7, or $90 an hour. Each shelter serves 50 clients who have been temporarily relocated from other shelters during the pandemic. 

According to Parks spokeswoman Rachel Schulkin, “staffing for these centers is a mixture of shelter staff and recreation staff—with many working in a shelter setting for the first time. Providing security at these facilities through a trained and prepared contractor, supports our ability to stand up a shelter in relatively short order and through reassignment of City employees.”

“I’m sort of bristling at this concept that the only way that we will pass a strong, progressive revenue bill is if it’s heard in the committee of Council Member Sawant.” -Seattle City Council member Lisa Herbold

4. City council members squabbled Monday over two efforts by council member Kshama Sawant to control the narrative in the council’s virtual chambers—a harder task than usual, now that she is unable to organize physical “Pack City Hall!” rallies at city hall. First, Sawant tried and failed to introduce a proposal that would allow people to give virtual public testimony on any subject related to the COVID-19 epidemic, a sharp departure from standing council rules that require public commenters to speak to items on the agenda.

After that effort failed—”we need to have some semblance of order when it comes to council business,” council president Lorena Gonzalez said—Sawant tried to introduce her “Tax Amazon” legislation, which would now provide direct monthly payments to 100,000 Seattle residents, into the sustainability and renters’ rights committee, which she chairs and which her co-sponsor Tammy Morales co-chairs. Bills about taxation typically go through the council’s finance committee, which, unlike the smaller standing committees, includes all nine council members.

“If we really support the movement that has been fighting for this, I believe that it should be a committee that is chaired by me and Council Member Morales or a select committee that is being chaired by me,” Sawant said. “The only entity that is being undercut by all this is the movement itself.” Sawant then questioned Gonzalez’ motivation in wanting the bill to go through the finance committee.

Lisa Herbold, a Sawant ally on some issues, responded that the council had passed both the previous head tax and the 2017 high earners’ income tax through the finance committee, under former council members Sally Bagshaw and Tim Burgess, respectively. “I’m sort of bristling at this concept that the only way that we will pass a strong, progressive revenue bill is if it’s heard in the committee of Council Member Sawant,” she said. “Particularly in this crisis, I don’t think it’s helpful to promote that divisive approach to how the council does its business.”

Sawant’s proposal died for lack of a second, and Morales made a proposal to move the tax plan into the finance committee, which passed.

The City Funded Hygiene Trailers Last Year, But Never Bought Them. Now It May be Too Late. Plus More COVID News

 

1. The city of Seattle has been unable to procure the four hygiene trailers promised by the Human Services Department in mid-March because the trailers are in short supply nationwide due to the coronavirus epidemic, according to multiple sources. The trailers were added to Mayor Jenny Durkan’s 2020 budget by the City Council last November, but were not purchased by the time the COVID-19 epidemic hit Seattle full force starting in late February. The trailers, known as “mobile pit stops,” would give unsheltered people access to showers, restrooms, and needle disposal. There is a possibility that the city could rent trailers in the short term, but whether and when that might happen remains unclear.

The city did not immediately respond to questions about the delay sent early Wednesday afternoon.

Other cities, including San Francisco and Los Angeles, have recently deployed additional mobile hygiene trailers to address the needs of people experiencing homelessness. (The addition of new hygiene services has been offset by the closure of mobile showers run by the nonprofit Lava Mae, which just announced it was suspending all hygiene services in San Francisco, Berkeley, and, LA because of the pandemic, saying that the company is “not equipped or trained to handle a pandemic.”)

Support The C Is for Crank
During this unprecedented time of crisis, your support for truly independent journalism is more critical than ever before. The C Is for Crank is a one-person operation supported entirely by contributions from readers like you.

Your $5, $10, and $20 monthly donations allow me to do this work as my full-time job. Every supporter who maintains or increases their contribution during this difficult time helps to ensure that I can keep covering the issues that matter to you, with empathy, relentlessness, and depth.

If you don’t wish to become a monthly contributor, you can always make a one-time donation via PayPal, Venmo (Erica-Barnett-7) or by mailing your contribution to P.O. Box 14328, Seattle, WA 98104. Thank you for reading, and supporting, The C Is for Crank.

King County, whose epidemic response has been running parallel to the city’s, began purchasing mobile shower/restroom facilities between late February and early March, according to the director of the county’s Facilities Management Division, Tony Wright. The county has purchased at least a dozen of the mobile units, five of which were on display at a field hospital in Shoreline that the county has set up for groups of non-emergency COVID patients. The others are being deployed at hospitals and isolation sites on Harbor Island, at Harborview Hall on First Hill, in Bellevue, and at the King County Airport.

“It really was a case of, we’ve been through enough emergencies to know that we need to grab them early, so we grabbed them early,” Wright told me during a press tour of the Shoreline facility this morning.

The city council added $1.3 million in funding for mobile hygiene trailers to last year’s budget after a February 2019 audit found that the city provided far too few restrooms, handwashing stations, and showers for the thousands of unsheltered homeless people in Seattle. In early March, the city council approved the mayor’s declaration of civil emergency with a resolution urging the mayor to invest emergency funds specifically in mobile pit stops and handwashing stations.

Durkan announced last week that the city would place port-a-potties with handwashing stations in six locations, four of them in parks that already have public restrooms. The city of Los Angeles, in contrast, has 360 portable handwashing sites.

 

Locked restrooms at Little Brook Park in north Seattle.

2. In a press release touting the city’s actions on behalf of homeless people during the COVID crisis , Durkan’s office said that there are 128 restrooms open in city parks and community centers. So far, of 28 restrooms on this list that I have checked personally, and three that readers have checked (and verified by sending photos), 21 are open, and 13 are closed. These include not just restrooms in small parks in far-flung parts of the city but large community centers right in its heart.

The city must know, for example, that Garfield and Miller Community Centers—facilities that are being used as redistribution sites for existing shelter beds—are not open to the general public; the city is responsible for these sites, and the prominent “NO PUBLIC RESTROOMS” signs on every door were put there by the Seattle Parks Department. So it’s unclear why they have not updated their list of “open” restrooms—or, for that matter, unlocked the ones that remain inaccessible, like those at Little Brook Park in Northeast Seattle, Northacres Park near Aurora Ave. N., Salmon Bay Park in Ballard, Cal Anderson Park on Capitol Hill, or Brighton Park in southeast Seattle.

3. During this morning’s tour of the Shoreline facility, King County Executive Dow Constantine rebuffed questions about whether the county would effectively wall off the field hospitals and other facilities the county is standing up and surround them with security to ensure that no one can leave. (TV reporters, in particular, have been exercised over the idea that homeless people with COVID symptoms will “escape” from hospitals and isolation facilities, after a man left a motel in Kent that was being used as an isolation site.)

“There is going to be security at each facility,” King County Executive Dow Constantine said. “Each facility is not going to be surrounded by barbed wire. This is not how this works.” 

Constantine said the county was also working to add more “de-intensification” space for homeless shelters where people are still sleeping inches apart. The new locations, where people already staying in shelters are being moved so that they can sleep further apart, are still congregate spaces, raising the question of why—if the guidelines for housed people say we should all be isolating—the county couldn’t just put people who are capable of staying on their own in vacant hotel rooms.

Flor said the county has considered purchasing a motel for this purpose, but said that the county was relying on shelter providers such as Union Gospel Mission, and advocates such as Health Care for the Homeless, to do assessments and decide the best course of action for shelter clients. There is some debate among groups that provide shelter about whether most clients could live independently or need, in effect, supervision. This debate could come to a head as shelter capacity is stretched to its limit, and as more City of Seattle employees are asked to work in shelters.

A primary reason that the city says it has been unable to move many shelter residents out of their current crowded conditions is a lack of staffing—that is, there aren’t enough people to supervise shelter residents. Allowing people who are assessed and found capable of living independently to self-isolate in their own hotel rooms could help solve the overcrowding problem, but it would mean abandoning the idea that every person staying in a shelter needs to be watched over by a supervisor while they sleep.